‘A bit of sunshine': the best tomato varieties to cook with in winter

16 February 2024 by

When customers are expecting summery Italian food, finding ingredients that defy traditional seasonality is key. Theo Randall explains how he finds that sun-ripened flavour in winter tomatoes

The first thing guests at Theo Randall at the Intercontinental in London taste, alongside some fluffy focaccia, is a tomato-topped bruschetta. The chef wants to make sure his guests are welcomed not only with a smile, but also with a taste of the menu to come. Randall, who won a Michelin star for his Italian cooking at London's River Café in 1997 and has had his name above the door at the InterContinental since 2006, is keen for his dishes to stay seasonal. However, this proves more difficult when winter cabbage and root vegetables might not be what customers expect from a sun-kissed Italian restaurant.

Randall has found a solution with tomatoes that defy the seasons. Varieties of winter tomatoes form the basis of his menu during the colder months of the year and are grown in a way that fills them with flavour and avoids that watery, under-developed taste tomatoes that lack sunshine often have.

"It's a bit weird talking about tomatoes at this time of year," he says. "But the tomatoes I think at this time of year are almost the best because you get these amazing varieties."

At times, Randall almost sounds like a salesperson for Big Tomato – but after 17 years of running his Italian restaurant in a Mayfair hotel, he's used countless varieties of red fruit for his recipes and knows what he's looking for.

"If you buy the best quality and cook them in a certain way with the best quality olive oil, fresh herbs and really lovely sea salt, it will taste lovely because it's such a simple thing."

The best varieties for bruschetta

The tomatoes that top Randall's bruschetta are datterini – more commonly known as plum tomatoes – but not all datterini are created equal. Randall buys his from Nattora. "I've been using them since they started, and so we have a great understanding with them on the produce.

"They're twice the price of other datterini you can buy, but they're three times the flavour."

Thanks to the complimentary bruschetta offered to guests, his restaurant gets through over 40kg of datterini tomatoes every week.

These tomatoes are grown slowly to ensure that the flavour has time to develop. Randall cuts them in half, douses them in olive oil, salt and herbs, and puts them in a tray above the hot stove, where they sit for three hours.

"It's like when you get a sundried tomato, and it's a really concentrated flavour. This is halfway to that, so it gets a little bit syrupy."

How do Isle of Wight tomatoes compare with Mediterranean?

Many chefs will be familiar with the Isle of Wight tomatoes, which soak up the southern-most sun the UK can offer. Randall is a fan of the variety, but says they don't pack quite the punch he's looking for in his ingredients.

Grown similarly, but with a touch of Mediterranean sun, the iberiko tomato is one of Randall's favourite larger varieties. It's dark-skinned with bright red flesh, which ripens from the inside out. Randall says that they're grown with very little water, so the plant is all but dying when it produces its fruit, which concentrates the flavour.

"You don't even need to put salt on them, just some olive oil," says Randall.

Other varieties Randall enjoys are Camone and Marinda – both firm-skinned tomatoes but with great tasting insides. Randall's favourite variety is the oxheart tomato, grown in the area around Mount Vesuvius.

"They're the best tomato at that time of year," he says. "When you taste these tomatoes in winter it just gives you that bit of sunshine."

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